The Evolution of Puzzles
There is more to Escape from Monkey Island than gratuitous references to earlier games in the series or the sight of Guybrush Threepwood in a pirate bathing suit; namely, hard puzzles that are reminiscent of an earlier age in adventure games.
Adventure game puzzles have undergone something of a metamorphosis since Myst's release back in the early 1990s. Before then, adventure game puzzles often involved manipulating items in your inventory. They required a lot of lateral thinking, and some weren't solvable except by blind experimentation. One favored trick of adventure game writers was to have you use common items in unusual ways. It reached the point that many people expected adventure puzzles not to make sense.
Then came Myst. You had no inventory. There were no items to be taken. Instead, you fiddled with machines, deducing how they worked. Strewn throughout the game were patterns of number, color, and shape which suggested how the machines were to be used.
Since then, adventure game puzzles have tended more to the latter than the former. The fiendishly complex puzzles of yesteryear have given way to kinder, more gentler puzzles.
LucasArts adventures have been among the few holdouts. The puzzles in Escape from Monkey Island are almost entirely old-school, with puzzles layered on top of each other and much lateral thinking required.
The puzzle design in Escape from Monkey Island is, barring a few mis-steps, excellent. Puzzles get harder as you go along, and are generally well-clued. It's tight design of the kind you don't often see.
Ultimately, though, the puzzles don't work. Not through any fault of their own, mind you, but through a shift in the adventure game community. Everyone from reviewers to players, including me, have complained about the puzzles and how they're unfair. They aren't. When writing a hint guide for the game, I ran across clues for each and every puzzle in the game. But we're no longer used to these kinds of puzzles in graphic adventure games, and it'll take more than just one popular game to reintroduce us to the style.
Be warned: I'm about to discuss some of the puzzles in Escape from Monkey Island in depth. If you don't want the game spoiled for you, avert your eyes! Go play the game before reading on.
This article copyright © 2002, Stephen Granade